Ms. Archangel said that the focus of the show is on images that present “the many different roles that black people played in society, and the many different roles they played in paintings for artists.” The exhibition, she added, “portrays more than what we knew before, which were mostly images of servants and enslaved people.”
In the 17th century, the Netherlands was deeply involved in the international slave trade, but slavery was prohibited on Dutch soil. People of African descent who lived in the Netherlands at that time came as servants brought over by immigrant families, said Mark Ponte, an historian with the Amsterdam City Archives, and the lead researcher for the Rembrandt House exhibition.
Mr. Ponte specializes in early modern migration and the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade: Using marriage, birth and death records, he was able to reconstruct a network of about 100 black people who lived in Amsterdam during Rembrandt’s time. The women he identified were mostly servants in the homes of Sephardic Jewish families who had emigrated to the Netherlands from Portugal, and most of the men were Brazilian sailors who worked in the shipping trade.
Mapping their addresses in the city center, Mr. Ponte discovered that many lived in what is now called the Jewish Cultural Quarter, where Rembrandt once had a studio; some of them may have served as his models.
Mr. Ponte and the curators said they wanted to connect the black residents of Rembrandt’s neighborhood to the images the artist created. In total, Rembrandt created at least 26 images of black subjects, by Mr. Kolfin’s count (12 paintings, eight etchings and six drawings), and most of these were probably based on his neighbors, whether they posed for him, or he observed them on the street.
“Dutch artists like to paint what’s in front of them,” said Mr. Kolfin. From the 1620s to the 1660s, there was a marked increase in Africans in Amsterdam, he added, as evidenced by Mr. Ponte’s research. “But it’s been impossible to link the names to the faces, which is disappointing,” Mr. Koflin added.